What did Paul Cézanne (1839–1906) try to “realize” in his paintings? The above question has many possible answers. However, one perspective that has not yet been pointed out is the transformation of visual perception caused by the introduction of the steam railway in the nineteenth century.
Actually, in a letter to Émile Zola, written on April 14, 1878, Cézanne praised the scenery seen through the window of a moving train:
When I went to Marseille I was in the company of Monsieur Gibert. These people see correctly, but they have the eyes of Professors. Where the train passes close to Alexis’s country house, a stunning motif appears on the East side: Sainte-Victoire and the rocks that dominate Beaurecueil. I said: “What a beautiful motif”...
A few minutes from the railway station in Aix-en-Provence, Cézanne’s hometown, the view from the train going from Aix to Marseille is similar to the one described by him (Fig. 1). More precisely, what Cézanne admires here as a “beautiful motif” is the Mont Sainte-Victoire, which can be seen from the train when it runs through the railway bridge at the Arc valley (Fig. 2), painted in the center on the right side of his painting (Fig. 3).
Fig. 1 The Mont Sainte-Victoire seen from the train while passing through the railway bridge at the Arc valley (filmed by the author on August 26, 2006)
Fig. 2 The Mont Sainte-Victoire seen over the railway bridge at the Arc valley (filmed by the author on August 25, 2006)
Fig. 3 Paul Cézanne The Mont Sainte-Victoire and Large Pine (c. 1887)
It is noteworthy that this letter was written only half a year after the opening of the railway line from Aix to Marseille, including this railway bridge, on October 15, 1877. Moreover, Cézanne began painting the series of the Mont Sainte-Victoire around 1878. In short, Cezanne gradually wanted to realize the transformation of visual perception induced by the steam railway as one of his famous “sensations.” Indeed, in many of Cézanne’s paintings, his strokes are repeated in the transverse direction, while the ridgelines are emphasized in a horizontal direction, and the images of things that are nearer appear rougher.